For Native American soldier, heritage is a cherished gift
Today in European Spotlight, Stripes talks with Col. Bradley Harper, a Native American and commander of the U.S. medical clinic in Vicenza, Italy:
November is recognized by the American military as Native American Indian Heritage Month. How important is it for the military to recognize specific cultures and ethnic groups?
I am proud of my heritage. I did nothing to merit it. It was something that was given to me. If you don’t recognize your own heritage, you can’t respect anyone else’s.
You don’t appear to be what one would stereotypically consider a Native American.
My sister looks the part. She’s got the long, dark, straight hair. People who know say I’ve got the cheekbones, but otherwise I show the Scottish.
Speaking of stereotypes, Hollywood movies for decades presented Native Americans as the bad guys in western movies. Are you a John Wayne fan?
He was actually rather sympathetic about Native Americans. I’ve got nothing bad to say about the guy. My favorite movie is “Smoke Signals.” It was made by a Native American. As for Hollywood movies about Native Americans? “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman. I think that’s one of the most accurate movies as far as culture is concerned.
You grew up as a member of the Western Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Did you live on a reservation?
No. But I spoke Cherokee before I spoke English. I spent a lot of time with a family while my parents went to college. How much can I speak now? Maybe 20 or 30 words. My wife (Chere – who has both Cherokee and Comanche ancestry) knows a lot more than I do. I speak fairly well in about five languages: Spanish, Turkish, German, English and, from what some of my local staff tell me, Italian.
How do you come by your knowledge of your heritage?
My grandfather lived until his 90s. My great-grandfather died when I was a boy. When we had family reunions, the family history was told. It’s passed down. That’s part of the culture.
What part of your heritage do you recognize in yourself the most?
The storytelling. I love to tell a good story. Ask any of my soldiers and they will tell you that.
You didn’t join the Army as a doctor. How did you get into medicine?
I had a bad experience at Fort Sill (Okla.). A doctor who treated my men and I. I said, “If that guy made it through medical school, I can too.”
You’ve been in the military for more than 30 years. Why did you join in the first place?
Two reasons. My father lost all of our money in cattle. The vet bills went up and the cattle prices went down. I was attending college (Ouachita Baptist University) during Vietnam and my name was high on the (draft) list. So I decided I’d rather join as an officer than get drafted and serve as enlisted.
Do you bring any of your Native American heritage to bear when it comes to treating patients?
I think so. I think it’s important to educate patients about their problems or diseases. To give them a measure of control. Ultimately, I see myself as a consultant. The patient has to take responsibility for their own health.
Interview by Kent Harris.
Col. Bradley Harper
Day job: Commander U.S. medical clinic in Vicenza, Italy
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